Law Intended to Reduce Prison Rape Hits Unexpected Turbulence
A 10-year-old law proves harder to enact than originally anticipated.
By Holly West
Ten years after President George W. Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) into law, the North Carolina General Assembly is pushing legislation that would make sure the standards set forth by the plan are followed in correctional facilities in the state.
PREA was passed in 2003 to reduce instances of rape in prisons and other correctional facilities, but it took until May 2012 for the U.S. Department of Justice to release a report that set forth standards for all state and federal prisons.
Several of the standards aim to protect juvenile inmates by limiting their interaction with adult inmates.
Wendy Greene, director of the Incarcerated Youth Advocacy Project, said that some North Carolina facilities implemented programs to reduce sexual abuse in correctional facilities shortly after the federal law passed in 2003, but that many have lost their focus in recent years.
She said she hopes state legislation requiring compliance will make facilities respond to the problem.
“At this point, everybody just needs to do it,” Greene said. “If they would just follow the law, they would find that the children would be safer and the outcomes would be better.”
Show me the money
The incentive to “just do it” is strong: If North Carolina’s state correctional facilities don’t comply with PREA standards, the state will lose 5 percent of its prison funding from the U.S. Department of Justice.
But there is also a cost for complying with the new regulations. According to a Department of Justice report, it costs approximately $50,000 per facility to meet the standards.
There are more than 13,000 sites – including federal and state prisons, jails, lockups, community confinement facilities and juvenile facilities – across the country that are expected to meet these standards.
The Department of Justice estimated that nationwide costs would add up to approximately $6.9 billion for 2012 to 2026, or $468.5 million per year.
Craig DeRoche, president of Justice Fellowship, said this issue is not about money, but people.
“An enormous expense already exists,” DeRoche said. “It just makes practical sense that with part of those expenditures you would want to make sure that the people in the system are not damaged further.”
A contentious amendment
Though most agree on the principles of PREA, some disagree about how it should be implemented.
Earlier this year, an amendment to the bill that would require local non-state facilities to comply with PREA standards was removed. Under federal PREA law, only facilities that house state prisoners must be in compliance for a state to continue to receive funding.
But at a Senate judiciary committee meeting on Tuesday, committee members voted to reinstate the amendment, meaning county jails and other local lockups will need to comply.
Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, said his organization opposes the amended bill. He said there is no need for the General Assembly to get involved in PREA compliance on the local level.
“We don’t want this added layer of bureaucracy,” he said.
Caldwell said following PREA standards is already difficult because it is not clear exactly what those standards are.
“The federal PREA legislation is very complex,” he said. “We get constantly different opinions from different people on what you have to do to comply with it.”
The bill moves next to the Senate Committee on Appropriations.
Cover photo: Time Pierce, Los Gatos, courtesy flickr creative commons